Learning to read is an important part of learning language within a literate society. Regardless of what type of communication skills are desired, Arabic literacy is an essential part of achieving fluency.

Just like children learn to understand and speak before they learn to read, as language learners we want our communication ability to lead our reading and writing ability.

The Challenges

Arabic literacy presents unique challenges. The script is very different from Roman script in shape and direction, letters that look similar have completely different sounds, letters change shape based on location in the word, and dots fall above and below the text line. Apart from that, vowel markings that impact pronunciation, meaning, and grammatical function are rarely written.

The challenges associated with the script are minimal in comparison to Arabic’s diglossia, the use of two varieties of the language that are significantly different from each other. One variety is used primarily in spoken communication (Ahmieh), and the other used in writing (FusHa).

As learners, our goal is to participate more and more fully in the life around us. We don’t want to be left in the dark when we hear spoken FusHa or when we need to read something that’s written. The question is, what do we need to know in order to understand FusHa and obtain functional Arabic literacy? Is it a matter of simply learning the vocabulary, or is a more explicit knowledge of grammatical rules necessary?

Vocabulary or Grammar?

A 3-year-long study by Khaldieh (2001) sought to answer this question by giving Arabic (FusHa) students three tests that measured the correlation between reading comprehension, vocabulary knowledge, and knowledge of i’raab, the system for marking inflectional grammar in Fusha. I’raab is generally marked only in religious texts and children’s books. However, an educated native speaker is expected to produce the inflections (final vowel markings that denote the word’s grammatical function) correctly when reading a text aloud, mentally inserting the i’raab as he reads.

Over the course of three years, 32 students were presented with a text and in Arabic (without i’raab) and, after they had finished reading it, were asked to write everything they could remember in English. They were then presented with two more evaluations that measured understanding of various vocabulary words and overall mastery of i’raab. Contrary to the researcher’s hypothesis, the study showed no significant correlation between knowledge of i’raab rules and reading comprehension. However, the correlation between vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension was very strong.

The results of this study have important implications for language learners. Focusing on growing your vocabulary – even for reading – will increase your comprehension more than drilling of complex grammatical structures.

Taking a skill-based approach to language learning helps learners focus on the specific tasks they want to accomplish in the host world. What do you want to be able to do in Arabic? Communicate orally? Read for comprehension? Read a text aloud that doesn’t include vowel markings? Whatever your long-term aim, set goals that will help you make the most of your time with host people.

By Jozeca Lathrop

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Khaldieh, S. (2001). The relationship between knowledge of i’raab, lexical knowledge, and reading comprehension of nonnative readers of Arabic. The Modern Language Journal, 85(3), 416-431. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1193109